“After I got out of high school, my parents divorced, like many parents after 25 or 26 years of marriage. My father moved to Redondo Beach. My mother and I had stayed in the house we had lived in as a family after the divorce. But when the house was sold, she moved to West Covina and became a schoolteacher again. She had taught in Nebraska early in the ’30s, I think. So I moved in with my dad and his second wife. I went to L.A. Valley College for a semester and to El Camino Junior College for a few semesters. Then I quit El Camino and started working. I can’t remember quite the circumstances. Maybe I wasn’t quite ready to transfer — I was still working on my first hot rod. I had motorcycles, a few motorcycles, and somehow I got interested in Model A Fords. And so I had one hot rod while I was in high school, when we lived in Baldwin Hills. I was building a new Model A Ford, and maybe I — I think I dropped out, had to work on the hot rod and go to work for a while. Hot rods and sports, that’s what I was most interested in.”
Dennis looks more like an auto mechanic than a bookseller. The flattened, oily, nondescript baseball cap he nearly always wears seems to match his frayed khaki shirts, his stained and unkempt jeans, his heavily worn brown walking shoes with tears between the sole and tops. These details combine to produce the image of a man who is, let’s say, casual about his appearance. His friends and employees kid him about being so “fashion” conscious. His graying goatee and dark-rimmed Clark Kent glasses are the only professorial touches about him, and even they blend into his artfully careless sartorial ensemble.
Lots of things in the bookstore reflect his early interests. One of the first things you notice when you walk in is several huge pulleys and hooks suspended across wooden beams near the ceiling. “I think the pulleys are a reflection of those hot rod days,” he said, “and I think even though we have a bookstore, I still think it’s a garage where I’m working on the Model A Ford, and, I don’t know, I just picked them up. I acquired them here and there. I like to have heavy iron things around because it probably reminds me of that garage or something, and we’re working on the hot rod. I’ve got pictures hanging up over the front door of the hot rod — the Model A Ford. I still have it, of course. It’s parked in the ‘Bat Cave,’ a few blocks from here. My friend John Hughes came up with the Bat Cave name because the Model A Ford lives there and there’s an automatic garage door. The Model A is black and it looks sort of like the Batmobile. I also have most of my private library over there, mainly some works of philosophy that I used in Oxford and some works in Soviet studies from my Columbia days. Some works inscribed to me from Brzezinski and other professors of mine. Some books inscribed to me from people who have read here — Mailer, Ginsberg, Gore Vidal, Françoise Gilot, Oliver Stone, etc. I keep them together on a shelf. I don’t look at them that much, but from time to time if there’s something I want to review I’ll pull it down. Books in my own library consist of books that I’ve been wanting to read that I haven’t gotten around to yet and people whose style I respect, like Sir Isaiah Berlin.
“As it turns out, perhaps I’m a failed blacksmith or caretaker of a 19th-century hardware store from a John Ford movie. I sort of like the notion of the cracker barrel–potbelly stove–hardware store phenomenon. It has a lot of historical roots in America. So I’ve tried to make the bookstore like a bar, or combination bar–hardware store. And I think any bookstore can function in that way. It’s a place to hang out, browse around, and talk. And so that’s why the store looks the way it does.” It’s also a little bit of a gas station and barbershop (there are two barber chairs and a gasoline pump in the store), two other traditional hangouts where male members of a community gather to trade observations about sports, politics, religion, as well as “life, the universe, and everything.”
“How come you have two barber chairs?” I asked.
“Well, I’m down to two; at one time I had four and a half barber chairs. There was a half a barber chair that I picked up that I was going to finish in wood, but I eventually gave it away and I had another that I also sold, but now I’m down to two barber chairs — the original one, which is over there, and then the newer one. A barber chair because, well, again, a barbershop is a place where a lot of oral history occurs, and barber chairs are sturdy. Children can’t break them. Lots of kids come in and like to run around and touch everything, of course, as we would at that age. For them it’s sort of like Tom Sawyer’s Island here because there are a lot of artifacts and it’s a perfect place to run around and hide. So I like the barber chairs because they remind me of, oh, I don’t know, that cracker-barrel, community-store, barbershop phenomenon in which oral history occurs.
“As to what I read? People in the book business tend to be an inch deep and a mile wide. Just in the course of shelving books on every conceivable subject we might learn a little bit about something. For example, since we’ve been talking about the Bat Cave, this morning when I was ordering books, I ordered a book called Bat Bomb from the U of Texas Press for a number of reasons. We actually have a chiroptera section in the store, only because Texas Tech University Press had a sale once and they specialize in books on bats, scholarly monographs on bats, because there are caverns where the university is located. It’s not that we sell bat books very often, but once we started that section, every time we came across a bat book like The Short-Tailed Fruit Bats of Egypt, or something that we would never sell in a hundred years, we’d buy it anyway, just to add to the chiroptera section. Just because we thought it was fun. This morning we came across Bat Bomb and discovered there was some way that bats were used during World War II. I don’t know what that is yet, but I’ll find out because the book will be here tomorrow afternoon. And we’ll put it in the window because it’s a book that no one else is likely to have. That’s what we would call a ‘bookseller’s book’ — a book on an uncommon topic. And even though we’ll never be authorities on bats, a book dealer likes to look at odd books for a few minutes and learn something on an obscure topic and then shelve it and forget about it. But then maybe a year later somebody will walk in and say, ‘Do you have anything on bats?’ and I’ll beam and say, ‘Right over here.’ Sometimes that happens. There are books on everything — hot air balloons, baby carriages, packing-crate art during the golden age of the canneries in Monterey. There’s a whole book on packing-crate art. There’s hardly anything you can think about that somebody hasn’t written a book on. They often come out of dissertation topics: books on The Diseases of Mites or The Mammalian Ear, from Cornell University Press, which we have. There’s also a book called The Social History of the Potato. It’s over 400 pages. From Cambridge University Press. We have that book. We like that kind of a book. Someone was probably looking for a dissertation topic and spent a few years researching the potato famine in Ireland and it went from there. We learn something new every day in the book business. It’s the uncommon books that we like to discover and grab.”